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The Daily Tar Heel

Bags packed, Tom Ross recounts his 5 years with UNC

Former UNC-System President, Tom Ross, glances at documents in his office.
Former UNC-System President, Tom Ross, glances at documents in his office.

Just days after his official removal from office, former UNC-system President Tom Ross sat down with Assistant State & National Editor Corey Risinger to talk future plans, reflections on the system and his history in higher education.

The Daily Tar Heel: You started your career as a lawyer — how did that happen?

TR: I went to law school because everybody at Davidson went to graduate school of one kind or another, particularly during the Vietnam War. So you either went to Med school, seminary or law school. And I was afraid of blood, so that was out. I didn’t like science. And I thought about seminary. But I actually was going to get a P.h.D. in political science until one of my friends said, 'Well you ought to think about law school.' And I said, 'What do you have to do?' And he said, 'You have to take the LSATs.' And I said, 'OK, so when are they?' And he said, 'Well, two weeks from Saturday.' And I said, 'Well I’m taking the GREs that day.' And he said, 'They’re in the afternoon; you can take the LSAT in the morning.' So I did. No one studied for them in those days…

DTH: How did you get your start in higher education?

TR: I remember the day the search consultant called from Davidson and asked me whether I’d be willing to consider having my name be considered as the president. And my immediate response and my words were, “You have to be kidding. Is this a joke?' Because I guess I always thought you had to have a P.h.D. to be a college president. And I’d just never thought about the possibility… I remember the day the committee chair called and said we want you to be president and I was just quiet for a moment because I really was overcome with emotion. To be asked to be president of your alma mater without having been that good of a student, it’s kind of overwhelming. And he said, 'Do you feel a little like the dog that caught the bus?' And I’ll never forget my response was “No, I feel like the dog that caught the Lamborghini” — it’s pretty and it’s going to go fast.

DTH: Race has been a big issue on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus — have you been involved in any discussions about it?

TR: We actually had some discussions among the chancellors about the issues and about techniques they might use to try to create discussions on the campus. But let me say I grew up in North Carolina and issues of race have been part of my life since the day I was born.

I watched and proudly voted when my fraternity turned in our charter because they wouldn’t admit an African American. And that was hard to do in those years and particularly in a school that was heavily focused on greek life, and there were very few students who weren’t in fraternities… And so when people say have we made progress? We have. But have we gotten it behind us? Absolutely not. I hope and pray some way we will. But the only solution is open, honest frank discussion.

DTH: Can you describe your meeting with former board chairperson John Fennebresque last January?

TR: I think all I can really say about it is that it was a surprise to me. I had been told by a number of board members over the fall that they thought I was doing a great job and they were fully supportive. So I think to hear that they were interested in a transition was surprising to me. I’ve also said that I think the board has the right to select their own leader. Though I disagree with the decision, I think the timing was not best…

You hear rumors all the time. But the rumors I had heard had been more back in 2012 after the board had changed over completely and everybody said well, they’ll get rid of me. And I kept hearing a lot of that, (but) it didn’t happen. And to the contrary, I’d had discussions with my staff earlier that week that gee, we’re over the hump here. Things are going well, so what are we going to try to accomplish this year.. It was tough timing but it is what it is.”

DTH: How much longer would you have stayed?

TR: There was more to be done and I had certainly planned to stay longer. How long I don’t know but as I told people who asked me that question before last January, I plan to be here 3 to 5 more years. So that’s probably about the timeline …I think there comes a time when institutions benefit from new eyes and new approaches. But too much transition on the other hand can sometimes be debilitating to an institution.

DTH: As a former judge, do you think the search process for your successor was fair?

TR: I think in terms of a lot of the discussions about whether this was fair or that was fair, the transparency issue, the board search for my successor happened very much in the way as it had happened in the past. There may have been more consultation with this group or that group in the past. But the process itself was not dissimilar from the one that selected me. Many presidential searches are done in confidence because when you’re trying to select the best talent, sometimes you can’t get them to be part of the pool if it’s got to be public.

DTH: Were you present when the Board announced Spellings as your successor?

TR: I was not there that day. I mean that was a special meeting just for that purpose and I thought it would be respectful for me not to be there. Mainly because I thought there were going to be press who would ask me what I thought. And the attention should’ve really been on her and not on me.

DTH: Have you met with President-elect Margaret Spellings?

TR: I had met her before — her daughter was a student at Davidson when I was president there. But I took her to dinner and we had some conversation about where the university was and where things were going and what some of the big issues are that we’re facing. And then I had a meeting with her for about an hour and a half, two hours before the holidays, again sort of on transition issues and staffing and all those kind of things.

DTH: Spellings has been criticized for comments regarding the LGBT community. Have you ever faced similar criticism for your opinions on the subject?

TR: No. I am who I am and I’m proud of everything I think and believe. You know I think I’m right on everything like everybody does, I guess. But no, I don’t think I had any positions that upset too many people. And yet my positions were pretty clear on that issue and many others.

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DTH: What has the last year been like for you?

TR: Professionally it’s been fine. I mean I think we’ve gotten along well with the board; we’ve accomplished a lot. I feel like I’ve had their trust and confidence through the process and right up until the end. I feel like I have a good relationship with them and for the most part. They are all very well focused on what’s best for the university. Whether I agree with what they’re thinking or not, I think they are focused on what they think is best for the university. That’s a good thing.

Personally, it’s been up and down. There’ve been times when I’ve been working so hard I don’t even think about it. And other times, particularly the last few months as it got closer and closer, where I had a lot of sadness over leaving what I think is a great staff that we’ve built and leaving the Chancellors that I’ve worked with so closely. And I’ve had some sadness about not being able to continue the job. People ask me all the time, 'Well, what do you want to do?' And my answer’s always, 'Well, I want to do what I was doing. I don’t want to do anything else right now except that.' But I’ve gotta find something else.

So that’s been difficult and I don’t think the reality that it was final actually hit until maybe just shortly before the holidays when I started packing the boxes… I don’t know what I’m going to do next but I know in my heart that I feel like I’ve done as much as I know how to do with the time I had as president. I’m very honored to be able to have served. It is hard to let go. It’s hard mentally if nothing else to stop thinking about it. And in some ways I hope I don’t stop thinking about it because it’s too important of an institution…

It’s been tough for my family. And as I joke with people, it’s never fun to get fired in the New Yorker. Articles are appearing all over the country about it. I don’t believe anybody thinks it’s because I didn’t do a good job or any kind of scandal or anything like that. I think people know what’s going on. But even so, you don’t know that…

DTH: Do you wish you had more publicly fought your removal?

TR:… I think for me it was most important to put the university first. Second, it’s probably a little bit of who I am. I used to have a pretty good temper, and I think I learned years ago that getting angry really only affected me. If I was angry at you, you probably didn’t even know it. So it couldn’t have bothered you but it was bothering me. So I learned to try to really let go of that anger and I realized you know, even though I might disagree with their decision, I give them the benefit of the doubt — they were trying to do something they think is right. I have to live with it and move on. I don’t think I’ve shied away from saying I disagree with the decision. I never would’ve done that. But I don’t believe in personal attacks; I’ve tried not to carry anger about this. But mostly I’ve tried to put the university first. That’s just who I am.

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